Whether you are a student of the scriptures who reads 3-4 versions of the Bible simultaneously (at least one of which is in Hebrew or Greek) or you are so lackadaisical that scripture “study” means learning where the book of Romans is (hint: New Testament), you will want to read Adam Miller’s insightful, thought-provoking and beautifully written “paraphrase” of Romans, Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan.
When Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan arrived, I scanned the title, the bright pink color on the cover, and the subtitle before noticing Jana Riess’ claim that Miller’s work is “brave and beautiful.”
Brave? I thought. What is “brave” about a theological discussion of Paul’s letter to the Roman saints? Then I opened the book and stared in surprise. Having ordered the book solely on the basis of how much I enjoyed Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon, I was caught off guard by the content: this book is a translation or a “paraphrase” (Miller’s word) of Romans into contemporary English – quite literally. Chapter 1 of Miller’s book is Romans 1, and small numbers in the right margin indicate which verses each paragraph corresponds to. Chapter 2 is Chapter 2, and etc. “Brave” suddenly seemed rather understated, and I considered substitute words, such as “audacious” or even “impudent”—but those uninformed, initial labels did not last through page one of the introduction.
Why such an approach? In his introduction, Miller reveals his opinion that “modern translations” tend to focus on the “uncanny beauty” of Paul’s letter, but in so doing, they miss Paul’s amazing ability to “lay bare the underlying logic of the gospel.” In a picturesque metaphor, Miller explains, “Paul’s forest is always getting sacrificed for the sake of his trees” as readers focus on specific verse or particular phrases. Freely admitting that “some concern for details” will be lost in the process, Miller sets his sights on a much different aim than a typical translation: he wants to “illuminate the large-scale patterns that structure” the book of Romans, especially Paul’s notion of grace.
He does just that, and he does it with his own uncanny beauty.
In readable diction and prose, Miller’s introduction draws attention to our misunderstanding of grace and highlights Paul’s saving answers. Many of us believe that grace will kick in at the last minute “after all we can do.” We try our best to be strictly obedient to the laws and, when we fail, we hope a merciful God will smooth out our rough edges with little bit of grace. According to Miller’s interpretation of Paul, that idea is a misunderstanding of grace, but the misunderstanding goes much deeper. We tend to extrapolate our incorrect individual notions of a God-of-the-gap/ last-minute-grace and apply it to God’s entire plan. This is sadly upside down; in Miller’s straightforward words, “Grace is not God’s backup plan. Jesus is not plan B”– quite the opposite, actually. According to Paul’s doctrine, we were never expected or able to obey the law perfectly; God gave us law to show us our weakness. Indeed, “the law is itself a grace,” a grace that points toward Christ and toward God’s “unwavering fidelity to life” and His “unconditional” “commitment to making things right.” The law helps us realize our eternal need for grace. Miller argues that, according to Romans, it is “sin” that “recasts the law as a measure of our ability to get by without God’s grace” and alienates us from God in the process. Sin (not “sins”) selfishly tries to steal the show and make our lives and God’s plan about sin, not grace.
The arguments make sense. Moreover, Miller’s general public audience can make sense of the arguments because his writing style is clear and understandable. Instead of using technical terminology to frame the complex philosophical arguments (terminology that typically makes the logic utterly opaque to the non-scholar), Miller’s strong metaphors and down-to-earth word choice grant access to casual readers.
And that is just Miller’s introduction to Paul’s letter to the Romans. His paraphrase of the book is keen, necessary, and just as accessible as the introduction. Some readers may be only familiar with a few sections of Romans which are widely known and quoted, and yet, even in those sections, readers may find themselves bogged down with Paul’s words and phrasing. Once they are bogged down, readers likely will lose track of the argument. Miller’s words clarify complex ideas and murky (but beautiful) diction. For example, consider Romans 3:25-26 (KJV):
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
“To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”
While doubtless many of you brilliant Times and Seasons readers understand these verses, some of us will find Miller’s paraphrase quite helpful and enlightening:
“With Jesus’s own blood, God showed how far his mercy and unwavering fidelity are willing to go. He claimed Jesus as his own in order to show the length of his arm. God did it because, even today, even in this present world, he’s intent on straightening out the lives of everyone willing to trust in Jesus.”
As this example illustrates, Miller’s paraphrases of various verses bring insight and intelligibility, and they do so time and time again. Where Paul’s language might be confusing or cloudy, Miller’s words are straightforward and understandable. With paraphrase in mind, readers can return to their Bible study, more fully appreciating both the argument and Paul’s language.
Just like he promises, Miller keeps the “forest” at the forefront of Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan. Nearly every paragraph’s core is centered on his interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of grace. This need to concentrate on grace occasionally causes Miller to “paraphrase” a little bit beyond what is actually written by Paul. Consider Romans 6:6-8 KJV:
“Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
“For he that is dead is freed from sin.
“Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with:”
Compare that to Miller’s paraphrase:
“Our old way of being human was crucified with Jesus. Our old bodies, our old habits, our old desires, died with him. His crucifixion cut the cord that bound us to sin. Now when sin creeps in and tries to claim us as its own, we’re free to refuse. Even if we make mistakes, we’re no longer slaves to sin, bound to heel at its back and call. We can put things right and move on and try again. People who are dead and buried aren’t charged with crimes. They are beyond sin’s jurisdiction. They belong to Jesus.”
The paraphrase by no means contradicts the KJV and the ideas certainly parallel the KJV, but a few readers may be uncomfortable with the “relatively free hand” with which Miller interprets Paul’s letter to the Romans. These few people might feel the need to squabble about the sporadic paraphrased paragraph that seem to stretch beyond Paul’s words; to bicker a bit about certain interpretations or to wince at Miller’s updated examples and illustrations that cost him historical accuracy and grounding. But those few people would only be telling Adam Miller and the other readers of Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan what Miller already admitted openly. He identifies the flaws of his approach long before anyone else gets the chance to, and in so doing, enhances his credibility and persuasiveness.
Indeed, he is so credible and persuasive, so understandable and user-friendly that my only real concern is that some readers will be tempted to read Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan instead of Romans, itself. Though Adam Miller is welcome to speak to that concern directly, I am guessing that he would kindly but firmly offer such readers the advice he gives in his introduction:
“If you’re gripped in any way by what I’ve offered, don’t stop here. Read Romans again and again. Read the KJV, the NSRV, the NIV. Read it in it as many translations as you can find. Work through them carefully. Compare them verse by verse. Follow all the footnotes. Read scholarly commentaries. Learn enough Greek to wade through Paul’s own words. And then – most importantly – translate it yourself. When you do, do it better than I’ve done.”
I have my doubts that any of us will write with the depth of insight, the powerful diction, and the piercing logic that Adam Miller brings to Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan, but we can try. I hope we do try. I hope there are hundreds or even thousands of scriptural paraphrases written in the coming years, even if we, alone, are the sole readers of our paraphrases. I hope many of us seek to “liken all scriptures unto [ourselves], that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Ne 19:23), and I hope we do so with the Miller-like study, contemplation, and stylish prose that the task deserves.
Despite my initial misgivings, I actually hope that many such paraphrases are published and shared because it just may take a group effort to liken “all” the scriptures unto ourselves and because, in Miller’s capable hands, I have a better idea of what “likening” can be. It can be so much more than reading one’s own name into a verse of scripture here and there, just as paraphrasing Romans can be so much more than a stylized re-hash of Paul’s ancient letter. Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan does its own work; it calls us to question our assumptions about grace and God, about sleeping through life and being rescued, and about insiders and outsiders and who God loves and what He has done for them; it invites us to see ourselves and others in the light of God’s mercy, and it presses us to understand and appreciate the good news we think we already know. The work, itself, is a gracious gift.
And that is why I hope Adam Miller continues writing “brave and beautiful” paraphrases of difficult books of scripture. We readers understand that Romans is special (“10,000 words of raw explanation”), but many of us could use a bit of clarity and insight into Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hebrews, and Revelation (just to mention a few)–and because all of us “have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 KJV).
*(CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; February 26,2015). Available at amazon.com.
Thanks for the review, Kylie. I doubt that “some readers will be tempted to read Grace Is Not God’s Backup Plan instead of Romans, itself” because I doubt many Mormons actually read Romans. Mormons like stories, not doctrinal exposition, especially when it comes packaged in KJV prose. So Miller’s book will put Romans (and grace) into the hands and minds of LDS readers who otherwise would not have any real contact with Romans. It could become for this generation what Robinson’s Believing Christ was twenty years ago.
I read it and re read it again after President Uchtdorf’s talk. It is very good. But I feel that it is overly (though purposefully) wrenched from its Biblical context of first century Christianity and not adequately placed in an LDS context that recognizes a distinction between salvation and exaltation, and posits three kingdoms of glory.
Good point, Dave. (Sad point–but probably true).
Kylie – Thanks for the review – I’m really looking forward to picking up a copy and reading this. In your view, how does Adam’s interpretation come through as compared to, say, some of the New Perspective crowd (e.g., Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, etc.)?
JT, I’m going to have to beg someone with a more informed opinion to answer. My acquaintance with the New Perspective crowd is too cursory to give you the thorough answer you deserve.
Al, like most discussions of grace, it’s limited in what it talks about. I don’t see that as a flaw. A conference talk is by necessity relatively short and targeting a largely ignorant audience where motivating them is a big focus.
His main criticism which many are happy for is the idea that we can only take hold of grace if we do everything we could theoretically do ethically. While I think many exaggerate that as a view within Mormonism, clearly some people mishear talks to be teaching that.
Kylie – No worries – it is a large question that was probably unfair on my part. Great review.